The Problem With Telling Women to Stay an 'Arm's Length' From Men

The mayor of Cologne’s suggestion for how women should protect themselves from sexual violence has drawn sharp criticism.

Carnival season in Cologne (Wolfgang Rattay / Reuters)

Carnival season in Cologne is just weeks away. For six straight days, the western German city will be locked in a giant party that one Berlin-based reporter said makes Oktoberfest look civilized. This year, the mayor of Cologne said she’s concerned for the safety of women during Carnival, following reports that hundreds of young men groped, robbed, or assaulted dozens of women in the city’s square on New Year’s Eve.

So, when a reporter recently asked the mayor how women could protect themselves in the future, Henriette Reker proposed a kind of code of conduct for women “so that such things do not happen to them.”

“There’s always the possibility of keeping a certain distance of more than an arm’s length—that is to say to make sure yourself you don’t look to be too close to people who are not known to you, and to whom you don’t have a trusting relationship,” she said Tuesday.

Reker’s suggestion that women could avoid being sexually harassed (or raped, as two women reported they were on New Year’s Eve) by keeping potential assailants at “arm’s length” drew immediate backlash. On Twitter, the outrage—much of it alternating between shock and sarcasm—amassed under #einarmlaenge, or “an arm’s length” in German.

“What’s most annoying is that no one knew about #anarmslength before. Think how much women could have prevented!” one German woman tweeted. “If you’ve got short arms, you can just carry two umbrellas. That way you’re sure to keep the right distance,” said another.

On the surface, Reker’s comments were probably well-meaning. She’s not wrong to try to advise women on sexual-assault prevention, which needs all the awareness it can get. Plus, Reker is a victim of assault herself. A day before she was elected mayor last October—the first female mayor in Cologne’s history—a man opposed to Reker’s refugee-friendly policies stabbed her in the neck with a knife. And after all, it’s her job as mayor to publicly express concern about the safety and welfare of her roughly 1 million constituents. Stay alert, be vigilant, that kind of thing.

But never mind that it’s unrealistic to expect enough room at a crowded street festival to keep anyone at arm’s length. In another way, #einarmlaenge isn’t about staying alert, being vigilant, that kind of thing. It’s a suggestion that women change their behavior in order to avoid being harassed by men. It seems to place the responsibility for the prevention of sexual violence not on those who perpetrate it, but on those who endure it.

“An arm’s length” is like much of the advice women have been given—by government officials and college presidents and other women, in countries around the world—to avoid attracting “negative attention,” which could lead to sexual violence. Drink less alcohol at parties. Wear more clothes. Don’t ride public transportation alone at night. Marry a man. In Israel in the 1970s, after a series of violent rapes, one politician suggested women be put under curfew until the perpetrators were caught. “Men are committing the rapes,” responded Golda Meir, then the prime minister. “Let them be put under curfew.”

As Amanda Hess wrote in Slate in 2013, “Rape is a societal problem, not a self-help issue. Parents can tell their own daughters not to get drunk, but even if those women follow instructions, it won’t keep other people’s daughters safe.” German government officials can tell women to stay an arm’s length away from strangers, but that won’t keep women in India or Russia or the United States safe.

Reker hasn’t yet, to my knowledge, followed up her advice to women with a suggestion that men prevent sexual assault by not committing it. But here are a few suggestions worth considering. In 2011, a list of 10 “rape-prevention tips” mocking the tenor of the advice given to women made the rounds on the Internet. These were aimed at men. “If you are in an elevator and a woman gets in, don’t rape her,” one tip explained. “Use the buddy system! If it is inconvenient for you to stop yourself from raping women, ask a trusted friend to accompany you at all times,” advised another.

German officials have vowed to locate and prosecute the men behind the New Year’s Eve crime spree. “Anyone who believes they can breach law and order must be punished—no matter where they come from,” said Heiko Maas, the German justice minister, on Thursday. He was alluding to the fact that witnesses described the perpetrators as being of Arab or North African descent, and the connection that some have made between the assaults and the influx of asylum-seekers that Germany welcomed last year. But Reker isn’t telling women to stay away from strangers because some of those strangers might be migrants or refugees. She’s telling them to stay away because they’re men.